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In-flight wifi often comes with ludicrously stingy download caps (eg. 30MB for $4.99 yesterday on Singapore Airlines), which I'd like to reserve for email (minus attachments), documents I explicitly choose to open/sync, and tactical browsing.

However, computers and smartphones can't distinguish between inflight wifi and the regular kind, so when you connect they tend to think it's an excellent opportunity to download that latest OS update or back up all your photos, blowing through that cap in no time.

How can I control which applications are allowed to use wifi? I'm personally particularly interested in Android and OS X, but happy to upvote answers for any OS.

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    For android - setting Wifi to metered will disconnect any apps that are explicitly asked to download data over Wifi only. For Apple, we have a similar question on AppleSE. – RedBaron May 31 at 9:29
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    I think this question is better fit for individual SE sites of mobile OS, AppleSE and AndroidSE. – RedBaron May 31 at 9:30
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not really a travel question (though in-flight wifi may make it seem so). It is no different from question about using a custom hot-spot economically and IMO belongs to SE sites that deal with mobile OS. – RedBaron May 31 at 9:36
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    No, I think the question and the answer is very interesting for travelers. Let's not become a Visa SE. – Giacomo Catenazzi May 31 at 9:42
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    Also, how the hell is this not a travel question?! It's about a problem exclusively faced by travellers! – lambshaanxy Jun 1 at 14:43
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Android - Block Automatic Updates & Firewall

Block Automatic Updates

If you are only concerned about "System Updates", you may want to disable the automatic updates on your device, prior to your flight.

  • Go to Settings > Apps.
  • Navigate to Manage Apps > All Apps.
  • Find an app called Software Update, System Updates or anything similar, since different device manufacturers have named it different.
  • To disable system update, try any of these two methods, the first one being recommended: Tap Turn Off or Disable button and then OK. In case this button is grayed out, tap on Force Stop > OK to turn the process off temporarily. In such case, there is a possibility that the app may turn on automatically after some time. The app will surely be turned on again after the system reboot or if you check for updates manually.

Prevent Update

Firewall

If you are only concerned about apps auto updating, you could setup a firewall and configure which apps can access what. A popular Android Firewall app for this is AFWall.

AFWall+ (Android Firewall +) is a front-end application for the powerful iptables Linux firewall.It allows you to restrict which applications are permitted to access your data networks (2G/3G and/or Wi-Fi and while in roaming). Also you can control traffic within LAN or while connected through VPN.

And from their open source repository on GitHub:

Android Firewall+ (AFWall+) is an advanced iptables editor (GUI) for Android. It provides fine-grained control over which Android apps are allowed to access the network.

iOS 12 - Disable Software Updates & Background App Refresh

Disable Software Update

  • On your iPhone, launch Settings and select General > Software Update.
  • Select Automatic Updates. Note, if your iPhone currently has pending updates they will be displayed here.
  • Toggle Automatic Updates off (left/white).

iOS photo for disable system updates

Background App Refresh

To restrict iOS apps from refreshing content when on Wi-Fi (or cellular) you can turn them off in "Background App Refresh" settings of your device.

  • Go to Settings.
  • Click on General.
  • Scroll to bottom and choose: Background App Refresh
  • Switch off the App you want to remove from refreshing OR Switch it off entirely for all apps at the top menu.

Background App Refresh

Background App Refresh allows apps to refresh their content when on Wi-Fi or cellular in the background.

macOS - Disable Automatic Updates (App and System)

Disable Automatic App Updates

According to this MacObserver article for macOS 14.1 Mojave, you should...

  • Start by clicking on the Apple Menu in the upper-left corner of your screen and choosing “App Store.”
  • Choose App Store > Preferences.
  • Deselect the “Automatic Updates” checkbox

Disable Automatic macOS System Updates

  • Open the Apple Menu and choose “System Preferences”
  • Click on “Software Update.”
  • Deselect the “Automatically keep my Mac up to date” checkbox at the bottom.
  • Or if you’d prefer, you can click on the “Advanced” button to individually select what items you’d like to have automatically update—and which ones you don’t want to give that power to.

According to Apple support article, if you're using OS X El Capitan v10.11.5 or later, you should turn off background downloads. I am not sure what OS X you are using, since you did not specify.

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Many operating systems and apps these days honour the concept of a "metered connection", including Windows 10, OSX and Android, while IOS has the concept of reducing background data usage.

This should dramatically reduce your background data usage.

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+100

I’m going to future-proof this question with a new feature in iOS 13. This feature is called Low Data Mode and this feature is supported on an app to app basis. Here’s a picture of how to turn it on:

Low Data Mode

For people who may want to save data when they get off of the plane as well, this feature also is supported with cellular data.

  • Congrats on the bounty, but how did you get the bounty when you only answered this for one OS? OP specifically asked for Android and OS X...just curious – AussieJoe Jul 10 at 17:21
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    @AussieJoe Because Stack Exchange "helpfully" autoselects a random answer if the bounty giver doesn't choose one in time... – lambshaanxy Jul 10 at 17:45
  • @jpatokal I dont understand how this got the bounty when it only covers one OS and not many like OP asked for??? iOS 13 isn't even out yet?? – AussieJoe Jul 29 at 16:32
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    @AussieJoe it was randomly selected by Stack Exchange. I don’t agree with it either. – Grant Garrison Jul 29 at 16:35

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